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Highland Book Prize 2021 Shortlist

Reviews from the Reading Panel

A Review by Kirsteen Bell

Announced in the spring of 2022, the 2021 Highland Book Prize Shortlist is testament to the quality and range of literature made in or about the Highlands. Seventy-one books were submitted for this award, and so the selection of a longlist and subsequent shortlist was an exciting undertaking. Rising to the challenge was a 180-strong volunteer reading panel.

Each title was read, reviewed, and scored by a minimum of four readers, but more often as many as ten. It was those scores that formed the final longlist, from which the judges selected the shortlist, making this a readers’ prize at its heart.

As a celebration of the insightful and enthusiastic responses of the reading panel, we have brought together a selection of their thoughts on the four shortlisted titles (covers are shown on the back page of this issue).

These reviews are amalgams from multiple reader reports for each title and the titles are not ranked in order of inclusion. The winner will be announced at the Ullapool Book Festival in early May:

The Stone Age
Jen Hadfield
Picador (2021)

An exploration of neurodiversity in poetry, authentic and original, the individual poems grab the reader with a host of fresh images and apercus; each has a jewel-like quality.  The collection is highly polished, skillfully arranged, and elegantly composed.

Lyrical wordplay depicts Hadfield’s internal consciousness and the interplay of that with the external landscapes of her Shetland home. The language creates a rich visual tapestry around these impressions, with lovely use of similes and metaphors such as ‘whalebacked hills’ and ‘hands flachtering like birds’, giving resonance and immediacy to the changing weather, scenery, flora and fauna of the Shetlands. Invocation of ancient stones, rites and cultural references conjure up ancient Shetland for the reader who may never have visited the Isles.

Hadfield makes good use of Shetland vocabulary to paint visceral and tactile images through her poetry so that the imagination is strongly encouraged to fill in sensations of taste, touch, and smell.  When you feel a dictionary might be required to decode some of the trickier words, a glossary of Shetland words is included which is very helpful and achingly lyrical.

This is a remarkable collection, speaking with an assured and mature poetic voice.

Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape
Cal Flyn
William Collins (2021)

The central idea of Islands of Abandonment is stunningly simple but entirely original. Rather than looking for hope in places where the impact of humanity on our planet is less obvious, or where a sense of untouched wildness might still linger, Flyn takes an incisive, honest look at the places on Earth which have been most affected by the worst that our society has offered and looks for signs of hope in the darkness.

In a clear-headed, forthright, honest manner Flyn approaches a difficult and emotive issue. Many readers will be familiar with the history of some of the places Flyn travels to, like Chernobyl, but other areas are likely to be completely unknown. By focusing on such varied landscapes with such varied histories, the book feels fresh and engaging. It seems incredibly vital, addressing some of the most pressing environmental problems the planet is facing.

Flyn’s writing is wonderfully controlled. and she is not afraid to take the path less trodden and look at the world head on without flinching. Written in beautiful, lyrical prose that brings the landscape to life and sensitively expresses the writer’s response to it, this is easily one of the best I have read in the past few years.

Slaves and Highlanders: Silenced Histories of the Caribbean
David Alston
Edinburgh University Press (2021)

This book is the product of 20 years of devoted research into the links between the Highlands and slavery in the Caribbean through the 18th and 19th centuries. The author’s immense depth of knowledge of his subject, and his enthusiasm for it, is undeniable.  Despite its academic nature and tone, Alston’s style has a prose-like, storytelling quality and he does a good job of excavating the stories of individual people amongst all the facts and information presented.

Where there are gaps this is not Alston’s fault but of gaps in the record. The author deliberately seeks to provide a voice – as far as he can – both to enslaved people and expressly to women. His theme is also to consider the extent to which research into local history can help inform national debates and, with his brave, excoriating criticism of the lack of references to slavery in some of Scotland’s leading institutions, this aim is certainly achieved. On the modern impact of his theme, he pulls absolutely no punches.

This is an important and urgent addition to the debate and historiography surrounding the complicity of Highland Scots in the Atlantic slave trade and how this has directly affected the Highland region as a whole. At times difficult, but overall a fascinating read, one I feel richer for having read.

In a Veil of Mist
Donald S. Murray
Saraband (2021)

In a Veil of Mist skillfully weaves the strands of island life in the early 1950s with the experimentation of germ warfare, against the background of the Cold War.

Murray’s work is steeped in the history, culture and geography of Lewis, providing ample evidence that the island functions as far more than a simple backdrop for his story, but rather forms the foundation on which his tale rests. Although a work of fiction, the book is based in the facts of military testing of chemical weapons across the Highlands and Islands region, a dark slice of history with which many people may be less familiar. In bringing its reality to light, Murray does a great service to those people who were affected by these events and reminds us that governments may not always have the best interests of their remoter regions at heart.

The art is ensuring that the stories from the island and on board the scientific ship do not become disjointed, and Murray carries this off with aplomb. Written with authority and a firm grasp of language, the story lines and the descriptive passages made this a highly enjoyable read, with superb evocation of Lewis and its people.

With grateful thanks from the Highland Book Prize to all the volunteer readers. If you are interested in becoming a reader for the 2022 Highland Book Prize visit

Northwords Now acknowledges the vital support of Creative Scotland and Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
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